Mental illness addressed during pandemic

MID-HUDSON – At a time when a third of Americans report symptoms of anxiety and depression, the Orange County Mental Health Commissioner and Dutchess County Deputy Mental Health Commissioner weighed in on how to manage mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Darcie Miller and Dr. Jackie Johnson both recognize that the spike in mental illnesses among Americans is understandable, considering the impact that locking down and staying apart from loved ones can have on one’s mental health, even in the face of protecting physical health.

“We ask our country to isolate and to not have that human connection that is so important to our wellness,” said Miller.

“There was an understanding early on that the pandemic would exacerbate some mental health symptoms and behaviors,” said Dr. Johnson. “There’s so much that attached to [being on lockdown]: there’s the anxiety of getting sick, there’s isolation from systems of support, and even isolation from public transportation that can help people stay connected.”

Both counties have gone out of their way to offer services via Telehealth, a virtual modality of providing basic health support either through video or phone conferencing that has become more widespread in the pandemic. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in March that the State Department of Financial Services would order insurance companies to waive any co-pays for Telehealth appointments.

For Orange County residents, Miller believes this modality has been working out well. The rates of missed appointments in the two outpatient clinics the county operates have gone down from 30 percent to 15 percent.

“We’ve been providing more service than ever before during these last few months,” she said. “People are answering their phones, they’re getting on their computers and doing these Telehealth sessions and getting their needs met.”

In Dutchess County, Dr. Johnson explains that Telehealth video conferencing has been working out for the residents there as well, but some may benefit more from in-person sessions.

“There are a lot of indicators that you can’t grasp through Telehealth,” she said. “If someone has a certain body odor or you can’t see [what they’re wearing] from the screen down, there’s a lot that can get missed through Telehealth.”

Hotline services are also available for residents of both counties. Dutchess County Helpline calls have spiked since the pandemic hit. The county’s Stabilization Center, which typically offered in-person services for individuals in a mental health crisis, now offers those services over the phone, which Dr. Johnson said has been helpful as well.

Orange County’s 311 line call volume has tripled during the month of March, April and May. The hotline offers physical, mental and emotional health support.

Tragically, there have been setbacks as well. There were two reported suicides off of the Bear Mountain Bridge and one off of the Rhinecliff-Kingston Bridge in May.

Miller expressed her condolences but believed the suicides are an opportunity to further emphasize the important of mental health.

“Anytime I hear of a completed suicide it saddens me and inspires all of us in the system to work harder to connect with people,” she said. “Most important thing I can say about that is to prevent suicide by having the right information at the right time and having an opportunity to speak to a person about what they’re feeling.”

Ultimately, both Dr. Johnson and Miller agree that the stigma around mental health issues may be lifted after this pandemic.

“Maybe the pandemic opened the door somewhat, but that door will continue to swing more widely open and stay open and well beyond COVID,” said Dr. Johnson.

“When you’re saying ‘call 311’ if you need help, that’s sending a whole new message to the community,” said Miller. “It says it’s normal that people might need help, reach out and ask for that help.”

If you are in need of help and residing in both Orange and Dutchess Counties, contact the following:

Orange County Crisis Call Center: Dial 311 or 1-800-832-1200.

Dutchess County Helpline: 845-485-9700

Dutchess County Stabilization Center: (now offering Telehealth): 845-486-2849

There are similar services available in the other counties in the region.

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